But Shakespeare’s magic could not copied be;
Within that circle none durst walk but he.
— John Dryden
It’s April — “Poetry Month.”
My predecessor, Richard, had a soft spot for poetry. I’m rather partial to it myself. Given that yesterday, April 24, was considered, apocryphally or not, to be both the birthday and death day of William Shakespeare, who, with somewhere between 36 to 40 plays in verse and 154 sonnets to his credit is at least as much a poet as a playwright, I think it’s only fitting that I dedicate this column to him (whoever he may or may not be).
What has your relationship with Shakespeare been like? For me, at first, it was the ubiquitous engraving of that bald guy with the big collar and sitting in English class — was it always 8th period?
And the endless plot quizzes and the painful stumbling out loud through mostly incomprehensible lines as, one by one, we butchered the Bard’s immortal words.
But then I was cast in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Granted it wasn’t “the Play,” or Hamlet, with no blood, no bodies, sort of “Shakespeare lite,” but I remember loving it, the whole story, the humor, the magic, not to mention I was doing Shakespeare! We did it in modern dress as I recall (very edgy) but it seemed to work.
It was fun, it made perfect sense and, as our director promised, those lines in blank verse, that fusty “iambic pentameter” that had seemed so daunting in class made the lines easier to memorize. “The rhythm echoes the beating of a human heart,” he told us. Cool.
Except for a passing acquaintance in college, I didn’t have further truck with the Bard until 1988. When we’d moved here in 1982, my older daughter threatened daily to run away from any school that didn’t do at least one play a year, so we founded the Student Drama Club. By 1988, we were still doing plays in half of the gym, which, space-wise, turned out to be a boon, what with those 100-plus “Wizard of Oz” Munchkins the year before.
For some reason it seemed the right time to tackle Shakespeare. Well, at least “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I’d loved doing it 20 years before, but would these kids? Seemed risky, until it wasn’t. The fact is, when you’re “doing” Shakespeare, whether you’re 17 or 87, “inaccessible” or “old-fashioned” or “irrelevant” is the last thing it is.
Sad that from the time we first encounter the plays, we’re given the false impression that these works come to us from some rarefied celestial plane scrutable only to intellectuals and academics. No. As soon as I explained the basic plot to those kids, and they had a chance to say their lines once or twice, they got it, just like the unschooled groundlings who flooded the Globe got it 400 years before.
The humor, the passion, the three worlds spinning in tandem, spilling into one another, they didn’t need to be tutored about the Bard’s uncanny ability to express all aspects of our “feet of clay” species — craven to courageous — nor about the magnificent language with which he celebrated it. They understood it because they “lived” it, performed it, breathed it into being the way it was meant to be. Poetry in action.
It’s a testament to Shakespeare timelessness that in a 2016 piece that appeared on the PBS website about Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway blockbuster, “Hamilton,” the article’s author, Melissa Major, writes, “While it’s well known that Miranda was strongly influenced by rap and hip-hop legends, he also drew inspiration from the original champion of storytelling through verse — William Shakespeare.
Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director at New York City’s Public Theater, respected Miranda’s “Hamilton” from the creation of the first song. He explains how like Shakespeare, Miranda took the “language of the people” and elevated it to art. ‘In Shakespeare’s case he elevated it to iambic pentameter.
In Lin-Manuel’s case he elevated it to hip-hop and rap, and he ennobled it by turning it into verse and putting it at the center of the stage. That’s exactly what Shakespeare was doing.’”
So is there a part you have ever had a hankering to play? Maybe chewing the scenery as Lear, or Shylock, or trying your hand at being Juliet’s nurse, or Gertrude or Portia.
There’s no expiration date on Shakespeare, nor on our ability to bring ourselves to the roles he’s created whatever our age. So “brush up your Shakespeare,” seniors, and let’s do scenes, maybe?
As long as humanity can survive itself, Shakespeare’s works will always be current. Perhaps mystery continues to swirl around his birth and death days, his identity, his authorship, because these questions are open-ended, just like life.